Here at the mouth of the Tex-Mex delta, where the Rio Grande
completes its nearly 2,000-mile odyssey to the sea, a powerful
Gulf breeze hisses through a tall stand of sugarcane that abuts
the back fence of a farmhouse. Inside, a buzzing sound emerges
from the kitchen; the noise is coming from Bobby Morrow's
blender. The sun has just disappeared beneath the flatlands of
Nuevo Leon to the west, so it's margarita time.
San Benito, a somnolent town of 20,000 situated on the U.S. side
of the river, acts as a metaphor for Morrow's retreat from
public scrutiny. He's regarded as one of the finest sprinters
ever, yet it's hard to think of anyone who has hitched a ride on
the American celebrity starship who has so thoroughly vanished
into the back pages of sports history. Local javelina hunters
have more trophies in their dens than the 64-year-old Morrow.
The most conspicuous souvenir of his athletic career is a
photograph of him in the blocks next to actress Rita Moreno, who
is wearing cocktail attire. That's hardly a fitting tribute to a
man who won three gold medals at the 1956 Olympics.
"Thrice last autumn, while sound boiled up from all the broad
decks and crowded galleries of Melbourne's historic Cricket
Ground, a rangy, dark-thatched and extraordinarily
self-possessed young sprinter from Texas fled to victory ahead
of the fastest runners in the world." That was the lead to the
story that pronounced Morrow SI's Sportsman of the Year for
1956. His fame was far-reaching. Morrow appeared on the cover of
LIFE. He was on The Ed Sullivan Show, raising his pants leg to
compare his muscles with the host's. "Helluva nice guy," Morrow
says of Sullivan. "After the show he lent me his overcoat and
took me to a party at his apartment." It would be a stretch to
suggest that Morrow circa 1956 was as big a celebrity as Mark
McGwire is in 2000, but not much of a stretch.
Morrow, who was raised on his family's farm near San Benito,
arrived on the campus of Abilene (Texas) Christian College in
1954. The Wildcats' track coach, Oliver Jackson, in effect told
Morrow that if he wanted to attend a party school, go to Holy
Cross; if he wanted to win footraces, come to Abilene. Jackson
had a plan. His intent was to assemble a team of sprinters who
could outrun the West Texas wind. If they could do that, then
they could outrun the world. In Morrow he found his main man.
"Bobby had a fluidity of motion like nothing I'd ever seen,"
says the 80-year-old Jackson, who lives in Abilene. "He could
run a 220 with a root beer float on his head and never spill a
drop. I made an adjustment to his start when Bobby was a
freshman. After that, my only advice to him was to change his
major from ag sciences to speech, because he'd be destined to
make a bunch of them."
By Morrow's sophomore year, he had tied world records in the
100- and 200-meter dashes (10.2 and 20.6 seconds, respectively)
and anchored Abilene Christian relay teams to another world mark
in the 4x220. Still, track and field purists from the West Coast
were skeptical of Morrow's skill and suspicious of the wind
gauges used at meets in Texas. The San Benito Bullet? Sober up.
The doubt disappeared after the June 1956 U.S. Olympic Trials at
the Los Angeles Coliseum where Morrow won the 100 and 200
meters. By then, everyone realized it made no difference whether
the man in the next lane was from Baylor or Belgrade--he had no
chance of outrunning Morrow. Morrow's only bona fide rival was
Duke's Dave Sime, destiny's victim, who beat Morrow in the
100-yard dash at the Drake Relays in April 1956 but was injured
at the trials.
"I was standing near the finish line for the 100-meter finals in
Melbourne," says Bob Richards, who won the gold medal in the
pole vault at the 1956 Games. "The track was terrible. Loose,
like sawdust, and Bobby was kicking cinders 10 feet into the air
behind him. On a modern surface, there is no doubt in my mind
that Bobby would have run an eight-something 100 meters. He was
the greatest sprinter I ever saw."
At slightly more than 6 feet, Morrow was tall for a sprinter,
but his legs were thick. Stylistically Morrow was a symphonic
convergence of many moving parts, his stride offering the
illusion of a man floating an inch or so above the cinder
fairway. "Oh, he looked so relaxed, so graceful, like when he
was chasing rabbits back on the farm. That was Bobby's
trademark," says Jo Ann Richey, Morrow's former wife, who was
married to him when he won those three gold medals, in the 100,
the 200 (setting the world record, in 20.75) and the 4x100
relay. "But when he got back from Melbourne, he told me that he
was so scared when he got there that he wanted to run right back
out of the stadium and never stop."
Morrow overcame his stage fright, but he contracted something
else in Melbourne that he found far harder to shake, a
bitterness that still gnaws at him. He noticed that the nicer
hotel accommodations, far from the austerity of the Olympic
Village, were afforded, as he says, "to a bunch of guys whose
job was to hand out soap and towels, because they had to find
something for them to do." Morrow was describing International
Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who had been head of
the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1930 through '53, and his legion
of men from that organization. "They flew their wives over
there, too," says Morrow. "And their friends."
Morrow's resentment would reach a more pronounced level in 1960,
the next Olympic year. After he completed his college
eligibility, in '58, he remained in Abilene, working in public
relations and business development for a bank, and trained
independently at the college. "I ran at invitational meets
around the country," he says. "I would cash in my plane ticket
and drive to wherever the meet or public appearance was, so that
I could eat. That was typical of what track and field athletes
had to do in those days. According to Brundage, along with the
AAU, which sanctioned the meets, we were supposed to sleep on
park benches. They let me on this CBS quiz show, To Tell the
Truth, and the network had to superimpose this announcement on
the screen that said my $25 winnings would be donated to Abilene
"About a year before the Olympic trials [in July 1960 in Palo
Alto], I flew in a private plane from Abilene to the Meet of
Champions in Houston, along with my wife and her brother," says
Morrow, who was in the process of getting his pilot's license.
"On the way back, the pilot nearly got us killed. I had to
wrestle the controls from him and land the thing myself. But
what happened at the meet had been worse. I pulled a groin
muscle, and it was bad."
The injury haunted him for months, cramping, literally, his
running technique. It still bothered Morrow a year later, and he
failed to qualify for the U.S. team at the trials. "But the
coaches asked me to stay in California and work out with the
team, thinking I would get a relay spot as an alternate," says
Morrow. "Or at least that was what I was thinking. I took a
month off from my job at the bank, and pretty soon my leg was
better and I was beating some guys who had made the team. The
coach, Larry Snyder, instructed me to show up at the airport in
Los Angeles and accompany the team to Rome. But when I got to
the airport, he said there was no room for me on the plane."
Morrow was stunned and humiliated. The man who less than four
years earlier had been described in SI as "one of the rare ones
who achieved--and gave--a little more: a distillation of
excellence, in his case as pure and heady an essence as the
Olympic Games have ever known" would never lace up a pair of
spikes again. "Actually, there weren't that many committee
officials on the team plane," he says. "I heard most of them had
flown ahead on one of the first intercontinental jets. The
athletes went on a standard prop job."
He became more disillusioned by the performance of the team that
had shunned him. Snyder's heavily favored men's sprinters hit
the track in Rome with a thud. Not only did they fail to win
either of the individual dash events, but also Frank Budd and
Ray Norton, members of the 4x100 meter relay team, made an
illegal pass during the final, and the U.S. was disqualified.
Back in Abilene, Morrow seethed. "Bobby and I divorced in the
mid-'60s and a lot of people think the fame that had come to
Bobby caused the marriage to fail," says Richey. "That's not the
case. But the disappointment of what happened at the plane in
Los Angeles might have been a factor. That was an awful way to
treat Bobby, and it stuck with him."
Ron Morrow, Bobby's 42-year-old son, who was born in Abilene at
the pinnacle of those world-record-setting years, says, "Even to
this day, if you want to see my dad's entire face go red, just
mention Avery Brundage."
Late in 1961, Morrow sought an appointment with U.S. Attorney
General Robert Kennedy to complain of the hardships suffered by
track and field athletes who had to live on a $15 per diem while
U.S. Olympic and AAU committeemen enjoyed lavish perks. "I got
the appointment," says Morrow. "I remember Danny Kaye was
waiting outside Bobby's office when I got there. I don't know
why he was there. I guess Danny Kaye and Bobby were pals.
Anyway, I went into the office. Bobby had his sleeves rolled up
and his feet on the desk. Very cordial. He listened to my
complaints, and soon I was invited to appear at a U. S. Senate
hearing. Senator Warren Magnuson [of Washington] was heading a
committee to investigate the problems I had discussed with
Bobby. It was like these things you see on TV, with the senators
sitting at a long table and I'm in front of them, with a bunch
What came of the hearing? "Absolutely nothing," Morrow says.
"You have to remember that Brundage and the AAU people had
terrific political clout in those days."
Morrow remains convinced that because of his testimony he was
essentially excommunicated from the track and field world. His
journey from celebrity to obscurity was rapid. In the mid-1960s,
Morrow's father, Bob Floyd Morrow, underwent back surgery.
Bobby, who was training to be a stockbroker in Houston, dropped
out of the program and returned to the farm in San Benito, where
he remains today, living alone. In the ensuing years, he made a
decent living as a cotton farmer. As a sideline, Morrow
sells--on his Web site (www.morrowgold.com)--polished mesquite
cutting boards and pens, among other things.
"The world has changed since I first left the farm," says
Morrow. "The values that I learned have disappeared. People
screw people these days and think nothing of it. They enjoy it.
I can't operate that way, which is why"--he laughs--"some people
would say that I haven't amounted to a damn thing."
To track stars of yesteryear, Morrow remains an enigma. "I'm
told that Bobby is a bitter man," says Thane Baker, runner-up to
Morrow in the Melbourne 100 and 200 and the person who handed
the baton to anchorman Morrow on the gold-medal-winning relay
team. "If that's the case, he has brought a lot of his
frustration upon himself. What has Bobby given back to the
sport? Nothing that I know of. We have these reunions. He says
he'll show up, but he never does."
Until recently Morrow had another version: "People say I'm aloof
and I don't show up for various ceremonial occasions. The reason
is, I'm never invited." Earlier this year, however, he received
and accepted an invitation to be among the track and field
luminaries to be honored at a dinner during the U.S. trials in
July in Sacramento.
Morrow strides out the front door to check his mail. The box
contains two letters, one from a person in Germany, the other
from someone in Brazil. Both people are seeking autographed
photos. The retired Texas farmer says he gets about a dozen of
those each month. Apparently, some people remember Morrow the
same way his former wife does. "He was the most beautiful runner
anybody ever saw," she says.
screw people. They enjoy it."